Cursus monuments have largely been ignored in Ireland. This is a curious omission in the study of Neolithic earthworks, given the scale of this monument class and it may well be a product of the fact that the limited number of examples makes classification problematic. The upland cursus identified over the past two years have improved the knowledge base considerably but equally, they raise significant questions about function, classification and indeed, the value of the term itself. The term ‘cursus’ was first applied to the linear earthwork at Stonehenge by the antiquarian, William Stukeley (1687 – 1765). Stukeley misinterpreted the Stonehenge monument as a Roman racecourse and this may be one reason for lingering doubt about the authenticity of this monument class – in much the same way as it has been unfashionable to entertain ideas of an established Roman presence in Ireland. Whatever the reasons for the absence of material, there can be no doubt that cursus deserve further attention. Arguably, few monuments from this period equal them for scale and drama. This is certainly the case with three newly confirmed cursus on the broadly west facing slopes of the Leinster mountain chain. With their exposed stone banks descending from the summits, they would have been an outstanding sight and must have been intended to create a serious impact on the observer below. Two in particular, Keadeen and Coolasneachta, would have been highly visible from several counties in favourable conditions. It is difficult not to jump to the conclusion that these earthworks were deliberately positioned on the western slopes as some form of defining statement or delineation of the Leinster Massif (Fig. 1) but drawing conclusions from such a limited sample is of course a dangerous business, so a search for more examples seemed to be called for.
After a sustained and surprisingly unsuccessful search employing the battery of aerial imaging resources now freely available, a virtual visit was paid to the cursus at Coolasneachta – known to generations as the Cailín Slipes or Witch’s Slide (Ó Murchú 2013). A methodical scan of the westernmost extent of the mountain chain stalled at a headland jutting out beneath Mount Leinster. Two banks were clearly visible running down from the summit of Slievebawn mountain (Pl. 2). They had all the appearance of ordinary field fences but were isolated, close to the summit of a mountain and seemed close to a listed cairn (CW020-016). If this was indeed a cursus, it was going to upset the perceived distribution pattern and highlight the risks associated with assumptions based on a limited sample. A site visit in early July confirmed that this was indeed a cursus and it bears many similarities with the three previous cursus discussed previously (Fig. 2).
The Slievebawn cursus.
Slievebawn mountain is predominantly composed of mica schist but may well owe its name to its composition of brilliant white quartz and equally striking silver schist (McArdle, P. 2004 -2006). There is a remarkable outcrop of very pure quartz at the summit (Pl. 2).
The two banks of the Slievebawn cursus begin somewhat abruptly from a point below the mountain’s summit (at around 105m) and descend at a punishing 45º incline for a distance of some 270m – insofar as the end of the banks can be determined.
In common with the other three Leinster upland cursus, there is no clear evidence of an upper terminal. Keadeen is the only one of the four to have a surviving terminal. We do not as yet, understand the importance of terminals or indeed, if they are a defining characteristic of this monument class. At the lowest end of the Slievebawn cursus, there is a linear feature at the expected angle (right angles to the banks) and roughly in the expected location (Pl.3). It has all the characteristics of a field fence or wall but there are no related perpendicular walls and no obvious indication that this feature forms part of a field boundary. There is evidence to suggest that the ground is disturbed at the point where the banks begin to diminish (Pl. 4) but it is difficult to determine whether this is a product of soil creep or exploitation in some form or other (Tobin, R. pers. comm.). The surviving banks are 22m apart at the upper end and 31m at the lower end. They are obscured for the most part, by turf cover and typical upland vegetation and consequently difficult to measure, but at a rough estimate, they range from c. 0.2 – 0.8m high and c. 2 – 2.6m wide. The fabric is barely exposed in one or two places and this indicates a schist/quartz construction with stones probably collected from the mountainside (Pls. 5 & 6). The northernmost bank appears to have incorporated two or three natural outcrops and two of these appear to have cavities at ground level.
Some features of the Leinster upland cursus compared
|Bank Length (m)||Bank to bank width||Orientation||Cairn at summit||Extant terminal||Height OD|
As can be seen from the table above, the two northern cursus are oriented on a roughly E/W axis and the southern two on a roughly NW/SE axis. All four are situated on broadly west facing prominences and with the exception of Lugnagun, have extensive views over several counties.
Two of the cursus, Lugnagun and Coolasneachta appear to extend to the summit while the remainder stop short. Only Coolasneachta is without a cairn in close proximity. While overall lengths appear to vary considerably, bank to bank widths appear to be reasonably consistent. The angle of incline is around 45º in all but Lugnagun and it could be speculated that the less severe incline was compensated for by increased length.
The known Leinster cursus are distributed on average, at 30km intervals but the Slievebawn cursus is a mere 1.8km from Coolasneachta. Of course other cursus may yet come to light and with additional examples, we may have an adequate quantity to allow us to draw conclusions about distribution. Clearly this presents a challenge to the perception of these monuments as evenly distributed guardians and raises the issue of the comparative proximity of two of the cursus. For the time being we have a limited number of facts to tell us something about these enigmatic monuments. Only one, Coolasneachta, is without a related cairn. And only Keadeen has an extant terminal. Whether or not all four originally possessed terminals is unknown, and there is a strong possibility that agricultural or other activities robbed out traces of this particular feature. If the cairns and cursus are directly related, then the absence of a cairn at Coolasneachta may be significant. As matters stand we do not know if the cairns preceded the cursús, or vice versa, or if they were contemporary with each other. Just as much of a conundrum is the fact that we do not know if the Coolasneachta and Slievebawn cursus were constructed in different periods or were contemporaries.
One of the most notable features of the Slievebawn cursus is a marked change in direction, close to the midpoint. The other three cursus are all reasonably straight. Whether or not this deviation was deliberate, we will probably never know. However, a line projected from the banks of the upper section aligns well with two cairns on the summit of Mount Leinster, some 3.5km distant, and a line projected from the lower section aligns very well with the cairn on the summit of Slievebawn (Pl. 7). Only the Coolasneachta cursus is without a cairn at the upper end but it too aligns with the Mount Leinster cairns (CW023-007 & WX008-001. Corlett, pers. comm). This raises the question of why two cursus should be so close together and can we speculate that the absence of a cairn is a factor in one or other of these particular cursus? On the other hand, the deviation in the Slievebawn cursus is almost impossible to appreciate on the ground. False horizons make it very difficult to align one section with another and it is not difficult to imagine that the builders were faced with the same problem.
It is difficult to escape the notion that these monuments were constructed to be seen from below. The banks were made of stone – insofar as we can determine without excavation – and must have stood out against the drab upland vegetation. Their linear quality too must have made them stand out against the curvaceous mountain landscape. In the case of Slievebawn, the brilliant quartz and bright, reflective schist must have made a bold contrast. They must have made a significant statement to anyone approaching the Leinster massif. This was almost certainly part of the earthworks’ purpose, they were not meant to be subtle.
With so little research and no excavation in Ireland, the intended use of cursus is wide open to speculation and the classic ceremonial versus utilitarian debate arises. As far as we now know, these Leinster upland cursus all appear to face roughly westward and unscientific though it may be, they do seem to define the Leinster massif. None have been found in the uplands that face any other quadrant of the compass, so for the time being, this observation does not stand up. It does however, raise the question of where did the builders live – did they live below and ascend the mountains in some ceremonial procession or some test of endurance and athletic prowess, did they inhabit the uplands and set out these earthworks to define their territory, or was the purpose of these monuments something more mundane and utilitarian?
We also need to examine the question of sub-classification. These upland monuments may well be in a different class to their more orderly and less punishing lowland cousins (Pl. 8).
We are not in a position to state very much with any degree of confidence with so few examples and the reality is that we have more questions than answers. The survival of additional cursus on other mountains is probably unlikely where afforestation has taken place or if they do survive, they would be difficult to find and interpret. Should more examples come to light, we may be in a position to draw more reliable conclusions, but for now we will have to settle for speculation, theory and questions.
Sincere thanks to Christiaan Corlett for inspiring an interest in cursus and to Red Tobin for his observations, asking difficult questions and pointing out that we know very little about prehistoric snowsports.
Corlett, C. 2013. Keadeen Cursus. Summer Newsletter of the Institute of Archaeologists Ireland. Series 2. Issue 9. pp. 8-9.
Hennessy, W.M. 1864 – 1866, ‘On the Curragh of Kildare‘, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol 9, pp. 343 -355. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20488923 (accessed 07/07/2014 06:39)
McArdle, P. 2004 – 2006. Walks in the Blackstairs Mountains (GSI)
Ó Murchú, S. http://archaeouplands.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/feature-friday-the-cailin-slipes-cursus/ (accessed 23/7/2014)